Commission looks at improving 2004 General Conference

"It's broken. Fix it!"

That's the advice of a United Methodist who was quoted during a recent meeting of the group planning the next General Conference in 2004.

The 19-member Commission on the General Conference, meeting Sept. 19-21, agreed an urgent need exists for improving the church's top legislative assembly, which brings nearly 1,000 delegates together every four years. Chairman of the commission is the Rev. James Perry of Minneapolis.

Problems identified during the meeting include increasing costs and expectations, and multiple assumptions about the 10-day assembly. One member described the conference, particularly the most recent gathering in Cleveland, May 2-12, as a "pot about to boil over." The question was asked: "Who is watching the pot?"

The 2000 conference, costing more than $3.5 million, was marked with rancorous debate, protests and even arrests. Commission members noted that some delegates believe the only purpose of the legislative meeting is to revise the church's Book of Discipline and Book of Resolution, while others want it to be a time of conferencing and discernment.

Aileen Williams of Rochester, Minn., a commission member who was a delegate to the conference in May, pushed for testing assumptions. "What is the purpose of the meeting?" she asked. "Who should be there? What should happen?"

Commission members said they have a mandate to "watch the pot" but agreed that others with responsibilities for the conference should be involved in making improvements. Recognizing that "for too long our efforts have been fragmented," they voted to call a meeting of groups and individuals who are responsible for various aspects of the conference. The meeting will be convened soon to discuss "new possibilities for designing a conference which would better meet the needs of the church in today's world."

Those to be invited include representatives of the Council of Bishops, which provides presiding officers from its membership and guides worship, in consultation with the Board of Discipleship's worship unit; the Board of Global Ministries, which provides translators and works with international delegates; and the Rules Committee of the General Conference. The secretary of the General Conference is already an ex-officio member of the commission as are staff members of the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). The chairperson of the local host committee is a voting member of the commission. The next General Conference will be April 27-May 7, 2004, in Pittsburgh.

The commission can only operate within the mandate given it by the Book of Discipline. Any significant changes must go through the legislative process in 2004 and could not be implemented until the 2008 conference.

The commission agreed to create an interactive Web site to collect opinions from former delegates, bishops and other interested people. Location of the site and the period of time it will be available will be announced later.

A spending plan was adopted for the next four years leading up to the 2004 conference. The budget of nearly $5 million includes $600,000 to cover a deficit from the previous conference. Each conference budget includes the travel, meals and lodging of nearly 1,000 delegates, printing of the Daily Christian Advocate, and translation for delegates from outside the United States. GCFA staff member Gary Bowen serves as business manager for the conference. Sandra Kelley Lackore, GCFA's top staff executive, is an also an ex-officio member of the commission.

Commissioners had high praise for most aspects of the Cleveland conference, but they were critical of the aging facilities and lack of equipment at the city-owned convention center where it was held. Many of the items usually provided in a convention venue were not available and had to be rented, Bowen said. Rent of the center, budgeted at $35,500, cost $232,000. Most of the difference was the high cost of security the city demanded and the high cost of utilities.

The unexpected security costs resulted from protests by pro-homosexual groups in the convention center. Bowen said protests have always been present at United Methodist General Conferences to some degree, but that much of the security in Cleveland was unwanted and unnecessary.

The commission hopes there will be no surprises related to the convention center in Pittsburgh. The Rev. Brian Bauknight, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park, Pa., and chairman of the Pittsburgh host committee, told commission members that a $252 million renovation and expansion of the convention center is on schedule and should be completed in 2002.

After discussing the high cost of processing and printing petitions, commission members agreed that before the petition deadline, Nov. 29, 2003, a sample petition would be provided. If the required format is not followed, petitions would be disqualified. Some instructions are given now, but many petitions came in with notations that required editing and long statements of rationale.

The subject of who can submit petitions was also discussed. Commission members agreed to ask the church's Judicial Council for a declaratory decision as to the "meaning, application and effect" of the sentence in the 1996 Book of Discipline that says, "Any organization, ordained minister or lay member of The United Methodist Church may petition the General Conference..." Commission members are particularly interested in how the Judicial Council understands "organization."

Some commission members urged that steps be taken to change legislation for the 2008 conference that would allow only petitions from local churches and annual conferences. Others in the group disagreed, citing the popularity of allowing any individual United Methodist to submit a petition. Some argued that if an individual petition is not worthy enough to pass a local church administrative board or annual conference session, it probably doesn't merit going to the conference. On the other hand, one commission member noted that a petition from an individual often prompts some of the most significant actions at a conference.

Inadequate translation for overseas delegates became a major point of contention for delegates to the 2000 conference, who voted to require simultaneous translation for business and worship sessions, translation of printed materials and assistance to delegates in the 10 legislative committees that meet during the first week. A total of $450,000 is budgeted for translation at the 2004 conference, representing an increase of more than $200,000 from what was spent at the Cleveland conference. Simultaneous translation is expected to continue in five languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Swahili.

Even with additional money and resources, commissioners discussed the difficulty of providing translation in the native tongue of each delegate for all settings at the entire conference. Roland Siegrist, a commissioner from Austria who is familiar with large multilanguage gatherings, said it is important to be respectful of people but "we must do it in a proportion that makes sense."

The commission is considering soliciting theme suggestions for the 2004 conference with the use of a Web site before the end of this year. Members also discussed location of the 2008 gathering. If they follow tradition, the conference would rotate to a city in the eight-state South Central Jurisdiction.

The commission voted to ask the United Methodist Publishing House to nominate an editor for the Daily Christian Advocate, the official printed record produced in several issues before, during and after each conference. Rich Peck, a Publishing House staff member who has edited the Daily Christian Advocate for the past four conferences, is retiring. According to the rules for the conference, the Publishing House nominates an editor and the commission elects.

The commission ordinarily meets twice a year, but to conserve costs it has agreed to meet only once in 2001. The meeting is scheduled for the Chicago area Oct. 3-6.

Members of the commission are

Brian Bauknight, Bethel Park, Pa.
Kenneth W. Chalker, Cleveland
Paul Extrum-Fernandez, West Sacramento, Calif.
Nancy K. Foster, Tulsa, Okla.
Gail Murphy-Geiss, Aurora, Colo.
Roberto L. Gomez, Mission, Texas
Glenn B. Kohlepp, Harmony, Pa.
Shirley Parris, Brooklyn, N.Y.
James M. Perry, Minneapolis
Roland Siegrist, Linz, Austria
Mollie M. Stewart, Valhermosa Springs, Ala.
Phylemon D. Titus, Detroit
Marie-Sol Villalon, the Philippines
Denny White Jr., Charlotte, N.C.
Aileen L.Williams, Rochester, Minn.
David Wilson, Oklahoma City

Carolyn M. Marshall, Veedersburg, Ind.
Sandra Kelley Lackore, Evanston, Ill.
Gary K. Bowen, Evanston, Ill.

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